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Alabama’s HB 56 Forces Women to Make an Impossible Choice

Posted: Mar 23, 2012

Fourteen-year-old Jocelyn wants to be the first person in her family to graduate. But now she may have to do it without the one person who most wanted to be there: her mom.

When Alabama enacted the nation’s toughest immigration law, HB 56, her mother was faced with an impossible decision: stay and live in fear; or flee back to Mexico, denying her daughter the education that she had sacrificed so much to give her.

Six months ago, Jocelyn’s mom decided to return to Mexico with her stepdad and three-year-old sister, leaving Jocelyn to stay in Alabama with an uncle.

“I don’t have her to wake me up every morning and tell me to do my best in school,” said the eighth grader, who said her mom had brought her to Alabama when she was six years old “for a better education and a better life.”

Jocelyn spoke to 17 women leaders from across the country this week, who traveled to Birmingham, Ala., as part of We Belong Together’s National Women’s Human Rights Delegation.

“Women and mothers around the country are hearing these stories,” observed Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum in Washington, D.C., and co-leader of the We Belong Together campaign. “And when they do, they have deep, deep, resonance.”

The delegation – made up of women from some of the nation’s leading social justice organizations, including the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the National Immigration Law Center – wrote a call to action in response to the stories they heard from Jocelyn and other immigrant women and girls.

In a statement released to national media Friday, during a telebriefing organized by New America Media and the We Belong Together campaign, they called on American women to join them in supporting the repeal of HB 56 and other “anti-immigrant, anti-family laws.”

Alabama’s immigration law, the delegates wrote, has created a climate of “fear, psychological abuse and torment” that has forced families like Jocelyn’s to make an impossible choice: “The reality is that for these women, the decision to leave or to stay here in their homes is an impossible weighing of unthinkable risks.”

But the law has also galvanized women across the state to the forefront of the civil rights movement here, with what the delegates called a “spirit of resiliency, courage, empowerment, and most importantly – love.”

Some local women have established their own human rights organizations in direct response to HB 56 in Tuscaloosa and other cities across the state. Others, like Faith Cooper, executive director of Central Alabama Fair Housing Center (CAFHC) in Montgomery, have joined in lawsuits challenging the law’s provisions.

CAFHC was one of several organizations that challenged a provision of HB 56 that made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to engage in business transactions with the state. This effectively made it illegal for mobile homeowners – many of whom are Latino families – to pay their required annual licensing fee. In November, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson found that state legislators had passed HB 56 “with racist intent,” and issued a preliminary injunction, temporarily keeping these families from losing their mobile homes.

HB 56 was “turning normal acts of everyday living into punishable offenses,” observed Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition on Human Needs, and one of the delegates who went to Alabama this week.

Cooper, who has lived in Alabama for 30 years, said she was “personally upset about how other women and families have been treated in this state … women who have had to find legal guardians for their children, people they don’t even know well, if they’re picked up by the police and have to leave quickly.”

Jocelyn, who is now living with her uncle, remembers when her mother first brought her to Alabama, telling her “all of this was going to be worth it someday.”

Now, she says, “I just want to be the first one [in my family to graduate] and be a role model for my little sister. I want her to come back and have an education.”

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